What does it take to build ‘good’ partnerships? A question you should ask before implementing a project

Zenebe Uraguchi, 09 September 2016
What does it take to build ‘good’ partnerships? A question you should ask before implementing a project

Rakesh Munankami & Zenebe Uraguchi

It won’t be an exaggeration, at least from the writers’ experience of implementing projects in multiple countries, to say that a ‘damn successful project’ requires good partners. A good partner is one that is capable and reliable with whom a project enters into specific agreements. Making the wrong choice can prove costly in terms of time and results, and can undermine the credibility of a project.

In this blog post, we share an emerging experience of the Grain Postharvest Loss Prevention Project (GPLP) in Tanzania in identifying and engaging partners. We distinguish two types of partners: the first ones are ‘system partners’ – stakeholders/actors in a system and the objective is to strengthen the actors to fulfil their functions in the system (e.g. the agricultural system). The second types are ‘implementing partners’ – those with whom the project enters specific collaboration agreements (MoUs, contracts etc.) in order to bring about the intended changes at the output level. The project engages implementing partners in a temporary manner to jointly implement the project and to contribute to its success with complementing capacities.

We do also recognise that such distinction may not necessarily be true in reality – system partners can sometimes also be implementing partners and vice versa.

Why the partnership – shared vision

The GPLP project seeks to contribute to increasing the food security and incomes of farming households in the Central Corridor of Tanzania covering four regions. Using a systemic approach, the project enables targeted smallholder households to have better capacity to store grains by using a metal silo and alternative postharvest technologies. At the policy level, the project also supports a multi-stakeholder platform for sharing experiences, knowledge and ideas and conducting advocacy for addressing postharvest management challenges in Tanzania.

The partnerships that the project seeks to build therefore is aimed at achieving improved postharvest management resulting in increased (quality/quantity) food supply and incomes through sales of stored grain at a higher price (selling later during high price season) by smallholder farmers.

Who are the partners?

During the design, the project document mentioned ‘signing a memorandum of understanding between the implementing organisation (i.e. HELVETAS) and its partners’. It did not, however, elaborate who these partners would be and how they could be selected and engaged. It was only during the inception period that the project defined its partners, identifying two types:   

The first type includes those actors within the grain market system that determine the performance, outcomes and sustainability in regard to successful market linkages of farmers. These are ‘permanent actors’ that make up the system, shape it with their activities and often derive incomes doing core business. They own a product / commodity (grain, technology e.g. metal silo, Purdue Improved Crops Storage bags – PICS bags etc.) and can be an individual, an organisation, group or company. Agro-dealers, workshops and artisans – part of the system partners – are key players and important partners for the project. Smallholder farmers are the ‘primary stakeholders’ benefitting from increased food security and incomes.

The second type focuses on different organisations and individuals (government institutions, NGOs, consulting firms) that provide diverse range of services to the market actors. Examples include Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO), Agriculture Non-State Action Forum (ANSAF) and Social and Economic Development Initiatives of Tanzania (SEDIT). They enter into specific collaboration agreements with the project to bring about the intended changes. The objective of this partnership with such actors is a high quality project implementation by providing technical advice.

While these may also include actors or players from type one above, they are extended to a broader range of actors within the grain market system (e.g.  advice, market information, financial and business services, policy constraints).

Engaging partners

The main guiding principle for the project to enter into all types of partnership has been: ‘how this will contribute to lasting and large-scale changes beyond the project’s life span’? In practice, this meant managing multiple partnerships during implementation, approaching new players and exiting from earlier partnerships as required. For the GPLP project, the process of identifying, selecting and negotiating with partners has been based on the ‘best-fit’ criteria – having shared and genuine commitment in the vision of the project that requires measurable and proactive joint contributions. The partnership therefore is adapted to the context in Tanzania, is pluralistic with many partners at different levels, and is measurable (in terms of contributions by the partners to achieving the objective of the project).

The process started with public announcement of call for proposals and pre-qualifications of suppliers and service providers. Partners such as Mringo Agrovet and Mpoli Agrovet were identified during analysis of the grain market system and selected through mutual discussion. This was followed by agreeing on the objectives of the project and potential partners; conducting due diligence check by both partners and the project; and identifying strengths/weakens and areas for collaboration.

Partners were mapped against geographical coverage and clusters, and there are serval pockets where there are no partners identified for implementation of activities especially for outcome in communication, awareness building and training, as well as outcome in artisan training and coaching. This will take time to search for partners and do the extra effort to support capacity development of partners. The project, as much as possible, will continue maintaining flexibility in how it works with its partner and regularly assesses progress to identify when and where modifications are needed.

Some emerging lessons

  • ‘Call for proposal’ (for implementing partners) is not always the best way of identifying and selecting partners in the GPLP project. Partners engaged in core business of dealing with products did not readily respond to the calls. The reality is the project has to make the extra effort of identifying them in the field and start the engagement through mutual and sometimes time-consuming and multiple discussions.
  • It is not necessarily true that bigger partners can always contribute to better results. Commitment to and alignment of visions between the project and its partners is also important. In the case of the GPLP project, engagement with smaller scale and more committed partners (e.g. agro-dealers) had better results than the larger ones.
  • Sufficient time and resources (including staff) as well as common understanding of the approach of the project should be made clearer from the outset. Partnership goes beyond identification and selection of partners; it also involves engaging and maintaining of partnerships. It takes time before the partnership starts paying off.
  • It is easier to say that partnership is key to the success of project implementation. Yet this is not a walk in the park: working with partners requires a high degree of trust building. Projects are time-bound and should deliver results within a given period; however, successful partnership takes time. Managing expectations and encouraging open discussions to agree on the objectives of the partnership, regular and informal interactions (sharing of lessons) including maintaining confidentiality of shared information are key to building trust with partners. In the agricultural sector with seasonal products (including postharvest storage technologies), it takes at least two seasons of working together to build the trust.

Rakesh Munankami works for HELVETAS Tanzania as Project Advisor in the Grain Postharvest Loss Prevention Project (GPLP) project.

Zenebe Uraguchi works for HELVETAS as Programme Coordinator for Eastern Europe and Senior Advisor in market systems development based in Bern.

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Zenebe Uraguchi
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Zenebe Uraguchi

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